You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

The Difference Engine

The Difference Engine is an alternate history novel by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. The novel is set in 1855 and is an example of steampunk: there is advanced technology based on steam power and Charles Babbage's difference engine. In this version of 1855, Babbage's invention led to an information revolution and upheaval in society. In addition to a strengthened British Empire, the United States is a divided country, vying for power with the Confederate States of America, the Republic of Texas, and California.

The story follows two narratives. The first is that of Sybil Gerard, the daughter of a Luddite leader killed in the chaotic 1820's. Working as a lady of the night, she takes up the role of adventuress with one of her gentleman customers. Engaged in a plot involving the exiled Texian president Sam Houston, her friend ends up dead and she flees to Paris.

The main part of the book is the story of Edward Mallory, a paleontologist famous for his discoveries of dinosaurs in North America. Mallory gets involved in a strange plot when he attempts to rescue Lady Ada from two strange captors at a racetrack. She gives him a package which contains a set of French style punch cards. Intrigued by this mysterious program, he hides it at the museum, yet finds himself followed by strange men. He finds himself involved in a strange conspiracy.

The plot is a bit confusing and muddled at times. While the punch cards are desired by Mallory's opponents, it's not clear what they are for until the very end. There is an intriguing theory that they represent a modus, a calculation for gamblers to get an advantage. In truth the set of cards is a sort of Incompleteness Theorem, but it is not clear how it is useful, except perhaps as a weapon of sabotage since it made the main French difference engine unusable. This idea has potential but it doesn't feel like it reaches it.

The characters are interesting takes on historical or literacy figures. The prime minister is Lord Byron, and his mysterious daughter Ada is the known as the Queen of Engines for her programming skill. The Royal Society in the story is a more adventuresome group with ties to espionage. Mallory is a complex character with a past and a family to protect. But the biggest draw in the story is the technology and how it changes the society. It gives an interesting look at what the Nineteenth Century would have looked like there had been different technology. B


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